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Understanding and Enhancing the Value of Female Corrections Professionals
By Robert Winters, JD, Professor, School of Criminal Justice, Purdue Global University
Published: 07/14/2014


The first female warden in the United States was Mary Weed, who after the passing of her husband in 1793 became caretaker of the Philadelphia Walnut Street Jail (and who enjoyed, it should be noted, an administration remarkably free of corruption). It was another quarter-century before the first female correctional officer was appointed, at New York’s Sing Sing prison in 1822. Thereafter, the growth of women in corrections slowed drastically, not improving until the late twentieth century.

In 1969, women made up 12 percent of the correctional workforce, and that only in facilities housing female inmates. Although a 1972 amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited gender discrimination in hiring by state and local governments, and the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals promulgated guidelines for hiring women in all correctional facilities in 1973, as of 1978 four state agencies still did not hire females for male correctional facilities. (One of those states, Texas, had no female correctional officers in 1978 but had 8,528 by 1998.) While various researchers and surveys have used different methodologies over the years, we can nevertheless obtain snapshots of the progress of women entering the field of corrections.

By 1995 the overall general correctional staff in the U.S. was 41 percent female. In 1999, 69,199 of 207,600 jail employees (33 percent) were female. In 2001 24.5 percent of correctional officers in male facilities were women. As of 2005 69,299 of 419,637 or 16.5 percent of federal and state officers were female. By 2007 women represented 37 percent of the adult correctional workforce and 51 percent of the juvenile workforce. The Bureau of Justice Statistics study Women in Law Enforcement, 1987-2008, published in June 2010, shows that in 1998 12 percent of Bureau of Prisons officers were female, up to 14 percent in 2008.

While these numbers represent significant improvement in just over three and a half decades, the percentages seem anemic when one considers that the total U.S. labor force is about 47 percent female. Moreover, as of 2007 over one million women were under the supervision of the U.S. criminal justice system, with over 200,000 of those incarcerated, and the number of female inmates increased by 404 percent from 1985 to 2007 compared to 209 percent for males. Clearly, there will be a significant female offender population requiring oversight.

Research has demonstrated repeatedly that there are very real differences between the genders (although it is important to recognize that those differences represent strengths that can be complementary in a mixed-gender environment, not weaknesses of one gender or the other). Specifically, women overall tend to be more communicative, collaborative, inclusive, and skilled with people, particularly in terms of being patient, empathetic, and nurturing. They are also usually desirous of information and interested in intricate relationships, whether those involve people, processes, or data.

It should not be surprising, then, that research has shown that female correctional staff have a positive effect on the environment even of all-male facilities. A 1980 study reported that male offenders did not feel that female officers invaded their privacy and did not resent taking orders from females. A San Quentin warden found female officers to be more observant and more attentive—important considerations for both security and improved inmate relations. Research in a prison in the southern U.S. revealed that male offenders were less likely to engage in violence in the presence of female officers and considered those officers to be just as competent as their male counterparts. In fact, another study found that male inmates viewed female correctional officers more favorably than did male staff members.

With the shift toward reentry preparation, the particular strengths of female correctional staffers have significant value. For example, one study found that offenders were more likely to be open with female officers regarding medical and educational concerns. The typical female approach to interpersonal communication is less confrontational, and women are socialized to view physical aggression as a last resort; these two traits produce lower levels of violence and fewer assaults. An experiment in the late 1990s in the Israeli Prison Service found that “the presence of women helped prevent trouble; they had a sharper sense for impending problems....” Also, because women tend to have a more collaborative decision-making process, as leaders they tend to produce subordinates who are better at problem-solving and in general produce more creative solutions.

How, then, do we incorporate more women into corrections? One of the first areas to consider is training. Opinions do differ on whether female officers should receive gender-specific training. Many authorities, including the South Carolina Department of Corrections and the National Institute of Corrections (NIC), feel that such training is appropriate and vital. Others, such as the female warden of a 1,000-bed male facility that is manned by nearly 80 percent female staffers, insist there is no such need. It is perhaps worth considering that in promoting gender-specific training, both South Carolina and NIC refer in part to the challenges of working in a male-dominated environment. It stands to reason, then, that once the correctional workforce more nearly represents the gender composition of the general population, the need for such training might well fade away. On the other hand, training that helps both male and female staffers to understand the aforementioned differences in the genders (and more not discussed here) could be a real benefit to all concerned.

While women have entered the correctional workforce, their promotion into supervisory and other leadership roles has been slower. Good mentorship is key to developing leaders, and with few female role models, women correctional professionals have suffered a dearth of mentorship. As women gradually enter the leadership ranks in greater numbers, a “critical mass” of potential mentors will develop. However, given their relative scarcity it is vital that female leaders act as mentors at every opportunity.

Along with the military, corrections is one of the last remaining male-dominated fields. But correctional institutions can benefit tremendously from what women have to offer, and it is important that women have the opportunity to fulfill their potential.

Corrections.com author, Robert Winters, holds a Juris Doctorate degree and is a Professor with Kaplan University. He is also a member of the National Criminal Justice Association and serves as a Western Regional Representative, a member of the National Advisory Board and their National Elections Committee.

Other articles by Winters


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